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February 13, 2017
9 Tips On How To Write A Showstopping Cover Letter

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Article: How To Write A Showstopping Cover Letter

Laurence Bradford, creator of Learn to Code With Me

If you find yourself staring at a blank screen when the time comes to write your cover letter, you're far from alone. Even if you feel like your writing skills are terrible, you can nail that cover letter with these nine tips from tech-industry decision-makers.

1. Only provide a cover letter if it's required.

Firstly, know that you might not even have to write a cover letter. "You should never assume it is necessary," says Cat Burhenne-Sanderson, head of Business Development for San Francisco startup Reelgood. "My number-one rule when applying to a job in tech is to get an internal referral and never apply online. Find an alum, friend of a friend, former co-worker, or family friend who can refer you. With an internal referral, cover letters are rarely necessary."

Kinh DeMaree, Head Talent Huntress at Axiom Zen, says that even with online applications, you can skip it sometimes, "Many applications indicate which fields are required. If a cover letter isn't required and you're not super excited about a job, then you can apply without one and spend your time perfecting cover letters for companies that do value them and that you're very interested in."

2. Make a strong first impression.

Recruiters are busy people, and especially if you're applying to a lucrative position, you should anticipate that they'll be reading lots of letters. Grab their interest right away with your first sentence.

Katy Martin, Career Developer at Dev Bootcamp Chicago, gives some suggestions: "You could use your first sentence to acknowledge the recruiter's pain (e.g., '[Company Name] is growing at an astronomical rate; it must be a whirlwind to keep up with it all!') or use it to surprise and delight the recruiter (e.g., 'At a mere six years old, I pulled up the command line on our old Dell and started hammering away at beginner code.')." This will make your cover letter different than the competition from the get-go.

3. Research the company to figure out what tone to take.

Every company is going to appreciate different things in a cover letter--so if you want yours to stand out, personalize it to them as much as possible rather than writing a dry, one-size-fits-all letter.

DeMaree advises, "Research the culture of the company. Is it a fun company that rewards creativity? Is the position you're applying for one in which you can think outside the box? If so, then you can take a risk and do something to stand out. I've seen cover letters/resumes delivered along with pizza, QR codes on a giant cookie, video applications, and spoofs on products."

James adds, "There are a lot of literary strategies to writing an outstanding cover letter, but the truth to cover letter success is learning about the people who make up the company. When it comes to building a connection between you and the reader, you have to understand the reader. This is where crafting the cover letter can become a challenge."

4. Keep your audience at the forefront.

A common cover letter mistake is focusing too much on "me". Rather than just listing your skills, talk about specific accomplishments and frame them in the context of how they provided value to your employer(s).

For instance, says Christine Hoffman-Hicks, CEO and President of Staff Smart, Inc, "Have you implemented technology that has reduced operational costs or increased revenue through improved efficiencies? When writing a cover letter, keep your audience at the forefront. Give them a reason to think 'I have got to talk to them. It would be a bad move to not act fast.'"

5. Don't rehash what is on your resume.

It's tempting to just take the easy route of listing past education, jobs, and so forth in your cover letter--but hiring managers don't want to see another resume (this time in paragraph form). "Why would you make me read the same information twice? Put yourself in the hiring manager or recruiter's shoes and think -- what information do they need to know about my candidacy that is not on my resume?" says Burhenne-Sanderson.

You can talk about education and jobs, of course, but if you do, it's better to pull out specific insights or anecdotes about something you did or something you learned--details that wouldn't fit on a resume.

6. Write simply and clearly.

Often, people turn to the thesaurus to sprinkle in long words and make themselves look smarter in their cover letter. Do not do this. Most recruiters will know exactly what you're doing, and be more impressed by candidates who embrace clarity and simplicity.

Also, says Burhenne-Sanderson, "Cut out deadwood and cliches. I can't stress this one enough. These just frustrate recruiters and hiring managers, making them skim trying to figure out the "so what" of your cover letter."

By "deadwood," she means unnecessary words that bloat your sentences: "Deadwood includes phrases like 'during the time that,' 'is in a position to,' or 'in my opinion' which should really be shortened to 'while,' 'can,' or just cut out entirely. Deadwood prevents your cover letters from being clear, crisp, and concise."

Cliches, meanwhile, include phrases such as, "'I have been passionate about _____ topic since I was a young child and 'I am hardworking, detail-oriented'" Burhenne-Sanderson acknowledges that it is difficult to write without these, since it's what many of us are used to, but you'll be better off. Write a first draft, and then do an editing phase to remove the fluff (and fix typos).

7. Don't come across as desperate.

It's part of human nature to be turned off by desperation but impressed by confidence--a truth that applies across multiple spheres of life. Of course, on the flip side, you don't want to seem full of yourself either.

Burhenne-Sanderson advises to strike a balance: "Don't be arrogant, but don't be so groveling in your cover letter or 'grateful for the opportunity' that it comes off as desperate. You want to come off as a strong candidate, who is aware of their skills and value to an organization, and who is polite but doesn't write in a way that sounds overly formal, robotic, or flowery."

8. Have a strong portfolio.

In tech jobs, your portfolio often speaks volumes more than your words, so make sure you have one that shows off your skills.

Frank Lee, cofounder at Bevi says, "For engineering hires, it is common to have folks that apply with less polished writing skills. The best way for them to overcome that is by building and sharing a portfolio of projects that they have worked in the past. They can present their qualifications more visually this way."

9. Show future potential.

Companies want employees who will not only flourish in their starting role, but who have the drive and ability to grow professionally, take on more responsibility, and benefit the company in ways other than the checklist they initially applied for.

Margaret Freel, Corporate Recruiter at TechSmith, says, "For technical roles, we like to see that they've taken initiative to continue their own professional development outside their work or school environment. That may mean they attend QA Testing groups, have taken an IT certification course, or that they're teaching themselves a new language. Candidates who show us they're taking the reins of their own professional growth definitely stand out."


Laurence Bradford is the creator of Learn to Code With Me, where she helps people learn how to code so they can get ahead in their careers and ultimately find more fulfillment in their lives. After teaching herself how to code at 22 years old, she discovered the abundance of professional opportunities that technological knowledge can offer. Today, she show others how digital skill acquisition can open doors to new professional possibilities. Her writing has been featured on Mashable, SitePoint, The Muse, and more.